When your Client is Racist (or Homophobic, or Anti-Muslim/Semitic, Sexist, or otherwise hating/afraid of an entire segment of the population.
Of all the many bridges we cross in our work to join our clients, isms can not only significantly compromise our ability to empathize, sympathize, and understand where are clients are coming from, but they can literally reduce our interest or capacity in trying. Prejudice against groups of people is a common expression of psychological constructs of projection and splitting, and therefore a symptom we are familiar dealing with in the clinical setting. Understanding racism as a client’s symptom, invites our clinical exploration, as opposed to limiting us to moral judgements.
Politics in the Consulting Room
Moral judgment of racism, and other forms of prejudice about groups of people is totally acceptable. In my own life, and in my political activism, I strongly support moral judgements, righteous indignation, zero tolerance stances, outrage, and much more as appropriate responses to racism. While having never been silent in the face of discrimination, in light of a year of relentless murders of black men and women by unprosecuted law enforcement officers, I have started shouting. But this is not what we do in sessions. We are there to help our clients understand themselves, and their suffering, and their prejudice is a sign of their disturbance.
When out in the world, as opposed to in sessions, I still believe racism is a form of projection and splitting. I spend a lot of time troubled by considerations of what the role of clinical social workers might be in helping the larger society to rely less heavily on such primitive defenses as splitting and projection, given the routine resulting violence of these mental constructs. But helping someone see their hatred of others as an externalization of hatred of parts of themselves can’t happen in a Facebook reply, or street altercation response, or even an extended conversation over Thanksgiving dinner. But within the walls of the consulting room, we have plenty of time, if we trend lightly and slowly.
Let me be clear. I am not suggesting imposing our agenda, even as noble as it might be, onto our clients. Identifying projection and splitting however, as the first step in helping our client regain lost parts of self, is a key function of the clinical task. If we do it organically, as the materiel leads us, we are doing appropriate clinical work. It must be attended to in its right time; when we have gathered sufficient data to link it to the issues burdening our clients.
Step One: Tolerating Racism and Misdirected Hate
We know as clinical social workers that our first job is creating a safe place for our client’s self-expression. We don’t have to like what we hear, we don’t have to agree with what we hear, we might not even be able to stomach what we hear, but we must be able to listen and support our clients’ self-expression in a way that helps increase revelation of their darkest, most vulnerable, shame-filled truths.
I had a young client once who was well on her way to becoming a white Christian supremacist. She hated Blacks, Queers, Jews, Muslims, fat people, Latinos, liberals, Democrats, foreigners, you name it. I myself am Queer, Jewish, fat and radically left. She could see that I was fat, and soon started to suspect that I might be queer, or at least feminist, which of course she hated to.
But first, before any work could be done, she needed a place to express her hate. Not only did I need to let her tell me about all the types of people she hated, but I even told her that I understood she was excluding me when she raged about fat people. Her hate was truth. It was misdirected, but she didn’t know that yet. It was part of a larger process of separation/individuation from her hippie dippy liberal family that was intruding on her self-development by imposing their leftist values on her, but she didn’t know that yet. It was saturated with all the things she feared most inside her, but she didn’t know that yet. What she did know is she was filled with hate and needed a place to safety evacuate some of it. That was one of the reasons I let her pour out her hate, session after session, without challenging or judging her hate, but sitting instead with how painful it must have been for her to be filled with so much of it.
The second reason I created a safe place for her to tell me about the details and nuances of her hate, is in these projections, and two-dimensional split-off part-object representations of groups of peoples, were the details of her internal object relations world. It is through her vivid explanations of which groups she hated and what she hated about them that I would learn about what plagued her internal world. I would learn her fear of her own gluttonous (though anorexic) self through her hate of fat people, her fear of her own anger through her beliefs about unjustifiably angry black people, her anxiety about how she would be viewed as a smart girl in her degrading remarks about feminists, her shame about wanting her specificity acknowledged by her family in her rants about Jews demanding acknowledgment of their holidays. It was by listening to her grotesque rants that I understood the quality and content of her self-loathing.
Step Two: Offer Individual Links
Sometimes my client would ask me to shame her. “You must think I am so horrible”. I didn’t think she was horrible. I thought she was tortured. Riddled with self-loathing. Left shallow and empty having rejected so many of her internal self and projected them on to others, or in her case, and in the case of racism, projecting them onto entire groups versus individuals. But it was still too soon to help her see her hate of groups as her hate of self.
First, she needed to see that she identified with the qualities she had ascribed to certain groups. Long after having established myself as safe and our relationship as collaborative, when she would talk about how disgusting it was the way fat people would just stuff themselves with donuts, I would have her notice that she feared if she let herself eat she would do that very thing. When she rolled her eyes about how angry black students in her class were about issues that hardly warranted rage, I would her help take note that her family often used that very language to talk about her anger. When she would declare that all the feminists in her class wanted to do was prove that they were smarter than the boys, I would remind her of how she withholds her best contributions in class discussions for fear the boys won’t like her if she is too smart. And when she talked about how Jews ruin everybody else’s holiday by refusing to just celebrate like “the rest of us”, I remember with her how her family accused her of ruining Christmas by wanted to celebrate it differently than the family tradition.
It may seem odd, asking a client to identify with something, a projection, that is actually theirs in the first place. But they don’t know that yet. Project is a strong and primitive mechanism that create significant distance and barrier between us and the split off portion of ourselves. Additionally, we are left we a compromised ego, as the parts of our ego aligned with that quality or experience as evacuated as well. Using identification first softens the repulsion we have for that which we have split off, readying it to later be reincorporated into the self.
Step 3: Reclaiming Lost Parts
Identification with the hated groups both softens the hatred of the group, and also lays the ground work to re-introduce split off parts of the self back into the ego. Some of this reclaiming happens naturally, unconsciously, overtime. Stylistically I like to identify and name the process with clients. I like to state clearly that I believe their hate of x-group is a displacement of their hate of part of themselves. By then I have plenty of evidence that they have already excepted as true through the links we have made together.
With my above mentioned client, we never got to stage 3 together, at least not in a full way. I had mentioned my theory here and there, about her racism, and her many hates, but we were still doing a lot of linking when she left for college. I had managed to navigate her away from a fundamentalist Christian college where I feared her remaining work would leave her vulnerable to getting drawn back into a world of black and white splitting on a communal scale. She left for a conservative Christian college, with my support that she be allowed to surround herself with other folks more like her, but hopefully a less dangerous version.
Two years later I ran into her. She came up to me and asked if I remembered her (a clear sign that she still struggled with self-worth). I smiled excitedly, asked her how x-university was going. She told me she had transferred out of “that racist place” and gone to y-university, which was a liberal Christian College. She said she didn’t know how I “put up with her”, again, a sign that she still struggled with shame, but not enough to stop her from approaching me that summer day. We talked, we hugged, and I shared my pride with her about her journey, a significant part of which she walked without me.
If the concepts of splitting, projection, reintegration and such and how to make use of them in sessions is of further interest to you, I would direct you to the foundational works of Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion, and contemporary theorists including Thomas Ogden. It is from these theoretical constructs this article was written.
If you are interested in ways we might engage folks who struggle with racist or otherwise ism thinking in non clinical encounters, I found this article from the New York Times thoughtful.
Our work as clinicians routinely place us in emotionally burdensome encounters, where it is as hard to contain our own emotionality as it is that of our clients. Working with clients who use primitive defenses routinely, as opposed to occasional regression to projection and object fragmentation, is particularly demanding. Racism and other isms/phobias/group hate are stuck in a primitive defense 24/7. The bulk of their world is black and white, so it is easy to feel pulled into a combative state with them. We have a commitment however, to meet our client where they are, and this is no exception. While their racism is an offensive set of beliefs out in the world, in the consulting room, it is a troubling constellation of defenses.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
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